For the past few months (my first months at Brown), my food-centric student activities have taught me a great deal. In my other clubs, I have gotten to turn compost, work at the student garden, discuss labor rights issues, and meet some fantastic and dedicated individuals. But my first FRN delivery gave me something entirely unique. During that first Monday night pickup, I felt that I was making a difference in the greater Providence community. What I did was so small. I lifted a few boxes, carried a few bags, walked a few blocks. But I got to be a part of a national organization that has saved over 96,000 meals from being wasted and consequently warded off hunger 96,000 times. The weight of the box in my arms and the wafting smell of croissants made me feel that tangible good was coming from what I did, what we all were doing together.
From the time I was seven until I was almost seventeen I volunteered at the Potter League for Animals, an animal shelter in Middletown, Rhode Island. A few years ago, the shelter was entirely rebuilt to accommodate more animals, enhance the building’s level of sustainability, and provide a more comfortable environment for the people and creatures that spent their days there. One day, while walking some dogs in the field out back, I turned to my mother, a fellow volunteer, and asked, “If you could wish one thing for the new shelter, what would it be?”
“I wish it didn’t have to exist,” she replied. In an ideal world, no one would leave their dog when they moved away, no cats would be found wandering the streets, no owners would be abusive. In an ideal world, all animals would be wanted and cared for, and there would be no need for the Potter League.
As a volunteer for FRN, I can see that the organization’s ultimate dream is that it won’t have to exist; not only that food won’t be wasted, but also that the shelters we serve won’t need to exist either. When thinking of what it will take to reach a point in America’s history where organizations like FRN won’t have to exist, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand. At times, I wonder if I am really helping at all. It is commonly acknowledged that modern hunger in America is not caused by a lack of food, but rather by the inability of individuals and families to regularly afford food. There is more than enough food to nourish every Providence man, woman, and child at the Urban League, the McAuley House, and all of the organizations we serve. The problem is not quantity, it is access. I understand this now. No matter the number of days Victoria (my pickup partner) and I bring in over twenty pounds of food from the Blue Room, we will not solve the problems of poverty, violence, and food insecurity in America; we cannot ensure that every member of the Providence community gets healthy, fresh food on a regular basis.
Having realized the enormity of the social ills FRN is addressing, by my second delivery weight of the box in my arms and the wafting smell of croissants did not make me feel quite so good. Yes, I would help feed people that night, but what was I doing to help make their lives better in the long run? I felt discouraged. The next day, I picked up a book in my room – “On Virtues,” a book written by Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. I flipped to a page that I had bookmarked over the summer. On the page was a quotation from Edmund Burke, a great eighteenth century Irish political thinker. It read: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”
After reading that quotation a few times over, it finally sunk in: I shouldn’t get bogged down in the magnitude of what FRN is addressing. I should do my part and feel good about it. Just because I cannot fix everything that is wrong with America, does not mean that I shouldn’t try to help those in need. Now, I take pride in what I get to do every Monday: “a little.” Each and every week, the other volunteers and I are working bit by bit to create something wonderful, a world in which the Food Recovery Network does not have to exist.